The Dirty Secrets About Scholarships: Essays Are Not Your Soapbox


As I interview scholarship judges, scholarship foundations, and scholarship winners, I am finding out new information each day, while reaffirming some very basic truths about scholarships no one likes to discuss openly but should. Since I have graduated and finished school long ago, it’s time to let everyone know the dirty truth; every unwashed, unkempt, and filthy bit of it. This week, we are starting with The Dirty Secrets About Essay’s. more after the jump…

Where Most People Fail With Essay’s

Anyone who applies to multiple scholarships each year will tell you that if you are doing it right, it will seem like a job. After all, you are asking someone to give you money, based on the effort you have put into being a good student, good citizen, and submitting a solid application package. This money is a form of reward and encouragement to keep you on the right track. Or at the very least, a track the scholarship committee agrees with. So here is the rub; what is the point of submitting a complete application package, earning great grades, and volunteering 20 hours a week, if you are planning to tick off the judges with your essay?

Every year, hundreds of thousands of scholarship applications end up in the “NO” pile, even when they have great credentials. Often, the cause of the rejection is they lost the scholarship judge once they started reading their essay. While their could be any number of reasons, typically they boil down to one of three; Not knowing the audience, not addressing the question, and being a whiner over being a winner.

Seriously, Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

The largest mistake people make is not thinking about their audience. Thinking about one’s audience is a something commonly done in public speaking settings. For example, a group of evangelical Christians are unlikely to be receptive to an avowed atheist attempting to prove philosophically why god doesn’t exist. Too most people that would just seem like a dumb idea or just plain rude. So paying attention to whom one’s audience is would be a great rule to live by. It seems simple right; however we rarely ever apply this same logic to our written speech.

In an age where 140 characters or less can get you fired, and a Facebook post can get your discharged from the US Marine Corps (think Sgt. Gary Stein), we still haven’t learned to think about our audience when we write. There are consequences to what we write that often last because what is written online or on paper is more permanent. Spoken words that go unrecorded are hard to retrace and verify. However,  what you write on paper, on twitter, on Facebook, on a blog, all have an effect on your intended outcome.

No matter what you have learned in your English Lit classes, people very rarely want to hear an opinion contrary to their own. This is even truer for scholarship committees. It’s important to keep in mind that scholarship not-for-profit organizations are usually formed to support students who have similar interests as the fund itself. Whether it is in career choice, opinion on social values, or in extracurricular activities, scholarship judges don’t want disharmony; they want unanimity.  It’s true that some large companies offer scholarships as a form of tax break and good PR; but more often than not, board members, judges, and the staff of these scholarships are focused on promoting their own interests. Writing an essay that is counter to a scholarship’s interests is a surefire way to get your application tossed.

For example, writing an essay to an Association of Candy Manufacturers about how you think processed sugar is bad for people is clearly a bad idea. Or writing an essay to United Bowling Congress about how bowling is not a “real” sport and is boring is another essay faux pas. But you would be shocked to find out applicants submit such essays every day. They may think they will be respected for having a strong opinion; I assure they wont. Their application will simply get tossed in the trash.  So know your audience and tailor your essay to fit their message.

Umm…That’s Not What I Asked You

It would seem a basic thing to expect, that applicants address the question that was asked by the scholarship application.  When they ask someone to write their opinion on a nurse’s role in the US health care system, that’s the question they want answered. They don’t want a page long diatribe about how women’s role in health care is taken for granted, or how nurses unions are driving up the cost of health care; they just want you to focus on the question itself.  This goes hand in hand with knowing your audience.

Essays are usually used to determine level of education, ability to communicate, and the mindset of the applicant.  Missing the target and not answering the question reflects poorly on all three of those criteria.  Scholarship essays that go off on a tangent in an attempt to meet a high word-count and don’t address the question are just fluff, and the judges will see right through it. However every year students will do their best to BS their way through an essay because they find the work to be a chore. It will almost never end well, I can assure you.

No One Likes Whiners: Solutions over Sorrow

Anyone who has seen the classic tale of Oliver Twist may have figured out that charities are rarely truly charitable. They support the people they like to help, or the causes they wish to support. So they often focus on one area of assistance over others. For example, Salvation Army thrift stores usually don’t do political advocacy, and breast-cancer awareness organizations rarely build parks.  People who get involved with scholarship organizations are almost always volunteers. At best, they get a free meal during the judging and get to spend time with friends. So when they get down to judging, they are often looking for people that mirror themselves in drive and determination. After all, typically judging panels are comprised of people that are respected in their profession or community. So it has to said that much like dating, projecting confidence does matter.

Some use their essay to list a long line of the hardships they had in their life. Single mom, disability, lack of money, etc. While that is not bad, simply detailing your sorrow does nothing to convince a committee member you are a good investment of their capital.  In addition, that long list makes it seem like you are whining about your life, and that hardship somehow entitles you to something. Quick newsflash; it doesn’t. More than 50% of the planet lives in some form of hardship and toil, and you are not unique.  So, the question becomes what to do about the hardships you have endured?  Well the answer is to be solution oriented. In short, tell them what you did to overcome your hardships or succeeded in spite of them.  Here are two examples; decide which one you wish to award a scholarship to:

Say Hello to Janice

Janice is a single mother of two, and has attended a local community college for over a year.  She is working on a degree in education and plans to transfer to a state university in the fall she was accepted to. Her ex left her and her children without any financial support. Here are two essay statement examples for her situation;

When my husband left, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. We have been living on food stamps since then, even though I am currently employed.   My job, combined with the need to care for my two young children make it hard to study. In addition, even with full federal and state financial aid, I will still have to work which will also take away from time with my children. This is why I need this scholarship so badly, so I can spend more time studying rather than working.

Did that in anyway impress you? Of course not. Yes, it’s sad she has to endure this, but most judges are not inclined to award funds to someone seeking to make things easier.  Now, lets try this again…only with a bit of confidence and drive

When my husband left, I wasn’t sure what to do. However, I quickly became determined to give my children a better life. I enrolled at a local community college, while working two jobs. My children and I made keeping our grades high a family event by studying together. This not only helped me keep my grades up, but also impressed upon my children the importance of an education. While I still have a few more years of study, I am on track to finish my degree and become a teacher. Receiving this scholarship would assist me in that effort.

In around 100 words, I summarized a hardship, a solution, a goal, and the path towards that goal.  So it’s critical to remember to never to simply list your problems and hardships with no context or explanation on how you overcame those hardships.  Be confident that the path you have chosen is a positive one, and others will believe the same.  This is especially true for scholarship judges.

Quick Tips

Remember that with any essay, you should summarize the main points if you have the space and word count to do so. So here is a quick bullet list of how to approach a scholarship essay.

1)   Play to the room by knowing your audience. This doesn’t mean you should lie. Rather, it means you should omit extraneous data and opinions that will be seen as negative.

2)   If you truly have a strong opinion and cant keep it to yourself because you don’t agree with a scholarship foundations philosophy, then don’t apply. You will just waste your time and theirs as well and accomplish nothing.

3)   Research the scholarship fund. Take the time to visit their website, look at their board members and do a social search on them to get a better perspective on their core interests and motivations. Often board members for small to midsize funds are also judges.

4)   Stay off your soapbox and stay on point. Most scholarships have a word count limit. So don’t waste time with fluff. If you can’t write the essay without filler, than rethink the way you are answering the essay question.

5)   Be solution oriented. People like solutions, not problems. Everyone has problems, yet not everyone has a solution. It’s why we pay consultants, and why you bother reading this blog.

No matter what, take this advice and make the most of your scholarship opportunities. Good luck, and good hunting.

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